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CROSSCURRENTS: PART FOUR

DEEP DIVISIONS AND PEACEFUL PROTEST

Let us bear in mind what was going down while Berry Gordy was building his musical assembly line. Brown vs. Board of Education, Rosa Parks and the tense standoff in Little Rock were all fairly fresh developments. Sit-ins at segregated lunch counters had only recently begun. Dr. King had helped turn the bus boycott into national news and the big marches were yet ahead. As Motown’s sweet, sweet music was everywhere, and its celebratory vision overtook the imaginations of kids worldwide, it became a cultural wind beneath the wings of a burgeoning movement for enfranchisement and inclusion.

But resistance to this change was entrenched and vicious (and remains so, but we’ll get there later). We’re talking lynchings and firehoses and police dogs. We’re talking George Wallace physically blocking the entrance of University of Alabama to forestall its integration in June of 1963, just one day before bigots murdered civil-rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi—and the bomb that killed four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that September. The brilliant artist Nina Simone contemplated these unspeakable acts in her seething 1964 protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” “Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it?” she asks in the song’s climax. “I don’t know/You don’t have to live next to me/Just give me my equality.”

The MLK-led march on Washington was the largest manifestation yet of the drive to overcome these forces of reaction with nonviolent resistance and political will. Voices were raised in spirituals and folk songs. An already highly charged social environment was further polarized by the war in Vietnam, as the draft and reports of atrocities began to foment resistance.

Motown was arguably at its apex when President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history, the same year the Gulf of Tonkin resolution deepened America’s involvement in a foreign war that would prove a highly divisive quagmire. And with all these winds of change blowing, Motown’s singles largely cleaved to their themes of love lost and found, tears of heartbreak and joy, as songwriting superstars Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson, musical miracle workers The Funk Brothers and the rest of the factory hummed along. Those themes wouldn’t change for a few more years.

As soul became an unstoppable commercial force, other contenders for young ears emerged. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton’s (later Al Bell’s) Stax/Volt, coming straight out of Memphis in the stringently segregated South, produced the first major integrated band in its house crew, Booker T. and the MG’s (MG standing for “Memphis Group”); this insanely funky band backed up an array of R&B hitters—Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett, Johnnie Taylor and more. But they blew the doors off in 1962 with the pumping groove of “Green Onions,” one of the most important instrumental hits of all time. The Memphis vibe was earthier than the streamlined, cosmopolitan aspect of Motown, a supreme example being the Otis-Carla duet “Tramp,” in which Otis gets dressed down, over a prime chunk of MG’s funk, for being “country,” a broke hick in overalls. But Otis doesn’t mind, replying, “I’m a lover.”

Stax/Volt records hit hard, with stabbing horns and stinging guitars and great swells of gutbucket Hammond organ. And it was MG’s band drummer Al Jackson, Jr., “The Human Timekeeper,” the explosive pulse of these incendiary sounds, who legendarily answered Redding’s complaints about touring with, “What are you griping about? You’re on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home.” Otis wrote that down. His version of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” an amphetamine burst of bass and brass, was a powerhouse. But Aretha Franklin’s magisterial take a few years later, slower in tempo while still summoning the world to the dancefloor, became an unsurpassed anthem of feminism, civil rights and empowerment.

Al Bell started as a Little Rock DJ and became a producer, writer and exec, serving as co-owner of Stax, spearheading the company’s early-’70s ramped-up production, which included huge successes by Isaac Hayes and The Staples Singers. He also put out soundtracks for such box-office smashes as Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and oversaw the Wattstax festival and film. Later in his career, Bell became President of Motown. He’s earned countless honors, including the Grammy Trustees Award.

     Top (l-r): Al Bell and Isaac Hayes, Nina Simone; bottom: Wilson Pickett

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